17.05.13, Wycherley, The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland

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Lisa Bitel

The Medieval Review 17.05.13

Wycherley, Niamh. The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 43. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xi, 254. ISBN: 978-2-503-55184-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

Wycherley has written a smart, imaginative, and in some ways ambitious book about body parts--or the lack of them--kept as saintly relics in early medieval Ireland. Wycherley rejects the common scholarly assumption that, while Ireland had plenty of saints, they were bone-poor and instead prized secondary relics, such as bits of clothing worn by holy men and women. This attitude, she argues, is a vestige of outdated scholarly belief in the peculiarity of the Irish church. Wycherley digs up evidence for the cultural, social, and political use of relics, including body parts, in the earliest Irish churches. Her lively explication of the documentary sources, supported with archaeological reports and a close study of the Irish vocabulary of relics and reliquaries, makes a persuasive case that Irish Christians understood and used relics in the same ways as their continental counterparts.

Wycherley spends the entire first chapter rehashing the origins of saintly cult in the Mediterranean world. In Chapters 2 and 3, she gets down to business, showing that the Irish longed for holy bones as badly as any Frank or Anglo-Saxon. In fact, seventh-century Irish churchmen were mad for bones from Rome. The community at Armagh, reputedly founded by Saint Patrick, based its bid for ecclesiastical superiority on a collection of bits of Saints Peter, Paul, Stephen, Lawrence, and other foreign martyrs brought from Rome. Although Armagh lacked its own patron's body--that's another story--they also had the bodies of his foreign colleagues, preachers who had come "across the sea" with Patrick. Wycherley finds evidence for the ritual use of these relics at Armagh in the traditional Patrician sources, which are preserved in the Liber Angeli, ca. 807. That volume lists the prayers and psalms to be sung as clerics processed each week from Armagh's main church, which contained the Roman relics, downhill to the sargifagum martyrum, where the missionaries lay buried or otherwise enshrined.

Wycherley relies heavily on evidence from religious sites far west of Armagh to argue that church-builders emphasized the tombs of their founder-saints, and that these shrines became targets of pilgrims' devotions. The stony landscape of western Ireland preserved more early Christian sites than found in the east; tombs built of stone slabs had apertures through which pilgrims might touch saintly bones. For eastern sites, Wycherley relies on scanty textual evidence. According to the earliest vita of Saint Brigit, a large church at Kildare contained the tombs of Brigit and her colleague Bishop Mel, arranged so that pilgrims might process around them. The vita suggests that the two saints were translated from an earlier spot to this enhanced shrine. From such tidbits of texts and ruins, Wycherley constructs her persuasive argument. In later chapters, too, Wycherley finds evidence for ritual translation and the formal uses of relics in stray references in the early hagiography, canons, and church laws or cána. Ecclesiastical and political leaders used relics to maintain peace and order. They swore oaths over relics, displayed them at political assemblies, and paraded them around when announcing a new cáin, such as the famous Cáin Adomnáin of 692, which prohibited harm to non-combatants during warfare. Churchmen made money by touring their relics on "circuits" of the countryside, collecting revenues from local kings and lords.

Throughout the book, Wycherley relies on the same method of combing a wide variety of textual and material sources for incidental evidence and then probing the vocabulary of relics and cults found in the sources--including the visual vocabulary of architecture and landscape--as her extensive appendix on terminology demonstrates. Her last chapter focuses on the struggle for possession of saintly relics, especially bodies. Ownership of important relics confirmed the political identity of churches at the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as well as networks of religious communities, kin-groups, and entire kingdoms. The founder saint of a religious settlement was its érlam, a word that may have been used for a tutelary deity in ancient Ireland. Control and leadership of the settlement, its church, its properties, and the relics of its érlam legally descended through the kin-group of the holy man or woman who established it. Wycherley interprets hagiographic stories of translationes as battles for relics, which further signified political competition for territory. Insults to special relics representative of religious communities--insignia--brought legal retribution and heavy fines. Political leaders confirmed treaties of "friendship" and patronage by swearing in the presence of insignia. When a king seized the insignia of a religious community, he destroyed the power of the abbot or bishop who ruled there and left the community unprotected. Many entries in the Irish annals reveal attacks on, desecrations of, and full battles over relics. At Armagh, for instance, rival claimaints for the abbacy took turns on circuit with Patrick's bell and crozier for almost twenty years in the mid-ninth century. The one with the relics represented the saint--indeed, was accompanied and blessed by the saint--where ever he went.

Wycherley locates her study of Irish relics in the larger historiography of Christianization. She spends quite a few pages rehearsing the history of saints' cults and relics, per Peter Brown and Pat Geary, in order to demonstrate the "continuity in practice between the Irish Church, in the early period, and its continental counterparts" (191). Do scholars still believe that a unique Irish or Celtic Christianity flowered on the island? Probably not, but less expert readers will find this historiographical context useful. Scholars of the Christianizing centuries have yet to grasp the implications of multiple Christianities strewn across late antique and early medieval Europe. It is hard to ignore the anachronisms of post-Trent Christianity when examining earlier forms of the religion, but Wycherley manages to do so. The real strength of this book is its attention to the grammar of relics. Wycherley's ruminations on the dense meaning of ferta and érlam are enlightening, as is her appendix of terminology.

Wycherley finishes the book with a list of its "outcomes." This book links Irish practices of relic veneration with continental traditions of the early Middle Ages. It demonstrates that Irish Christians were as enthusiastic about the bodily remains of saints as other Europeans. It argues that the cult of relics was popular among lay people in Ireland. It shows that the control of relics became a powerful weapon to wield in the complex politics of early medieval Ireland. Wycherley concludes with a plea for the continuing interdisciplinary study of individual saint's cults and the religious settlements that hosted them. The last lines of the book recall a tour of the relics of Saint Thérèse around Ireland in 2001: "In the end," Wycherley quotes an account of the tour, "it was not about Relics…It was about people." Not true. Wycherley's book is about relics, not people, lived religion, religious habits, or local receptions of Christianity. It is a well-argued, insightful book about religious things and their uses in early medieval Ireland. Experts on the topic will profit from Wycherley's philological investigations. Non-specialists will appreciate the book as an accessible introduction to yet another of the countless Christianities of early medieval Europe.

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